To My Students: From Europe to the Role of Higher Ed

Something for you at the end of the semester, and as some of you leave us. For those who will be going “into the wide, wide world,” congratulations on your graduation.

Ah, Europe. You, like other cultures of the world, embody the worst and the best of the human experience. How you can inspire us, how you shock us. You have produced some of the great thinkers of the world who have changed our lives, those changes for better and for worst, for many changes are neither completely perfect or completely demonic. Some are, however.

What we must always think about is what education has brought us. For it is true that some of the most educated people were the leaders of the Holocaust. So we must be more than educated people. We must be people of ethics and value.

Does that mean that education is not worthwhile? Quite the contrary. Done right, education can do a number of things. The first, most practical, is that is can equip skilled workers. But education is so much more than creating a workforce. … Because life is so much more than “working for the man,” as they used to say (although the singer wants to become the man and do undo others what was done to him, but I digress). Another reason is curiosity: human beings are a curious bunch and want to know “what it’s all about, Alfie.” But there are other reasons for education as well, and we must not forget them. One that I had never thought of, but now am ruminating about is the following:

The Dalai Lama “explained to us that ignorance is the root cause of suffering and that genuine open-minded inquiry into the nature of reality can be of great benefit to humanity by dispelling that ignorance. … Instead of curiosity or financial gain, the aim is for a knowing that will reduce suffering (p. 65 in The Heart of Higher Education).”

To reduce suffering. I had never thought of that idea before in these so stark terms, that education can help reduce suffering through reducing ignorance. I remember the quote from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol where one of the ghosts says something like this (here’s the quote that is evidently from one of the movies, at IMB):

Spirit of Christmas Present: My time with you is at an end, Ebenezer Scrooge. Will you profit from what I’ve shown you of the good in most men’s hearts?
Ebenezer: I don’t know, how can I promise!
Spirit of Christmas Present: If it’s too hard a lesson for you to learn, then learn this lesson!
[opens his robe, revealing two starving children]
Ebenezer: [shocked] Spirit, are these yours?
Spirit of Christmas Present: They are Man’s. This boy is Ignorance, this girl is Want. Beware them both, but most of all, beware this boy!

Related, but stated differently are the following quotes about why there should be higher education, which I posted yesterday, but which I’ll re-post here.

The first one is attributed to Wendell Berry:
“The thing being made in a university is humanity…. [W]hat universities…are mandated to make or to help to make is human beings in the fullest sense of those words–not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture…. Underlying the idea of a university–the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplines–is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of the making of a good–that is, a fully developed–human being.”
Wendell Berry, “The Loss of the University,” Home Economics (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), p.77.
Home Economics: Fourteen Essays. San Francisco: North Point, 1987 (Counterpoint, 2009).

The second is by Palmer and Zajonc in The Heart of Higher Education:
“If we would expand the worldview that supports education, we can find no better place to begin than by opening ourselves to the full scope of human experience. Life comprises an infinitely rich array of sensorial, emotional, and intellectual experiences. Whether walking beside a forest stream or listening to the premiere of a new opera, whether contra dancing or working at a laboratory bench, the theater of the mind is dense with impressions, feelings, thoughts, and impulses toward action. Parallel to the universe of outer experience is a comparably rich world of inner experience. Taken together they constitute the world of human experience (p. 64).”

So why are we here in higher education? Why are you here? Think about this as you move into the semester break or into life beyond the university. What has this semester brought you? Education that will help to provide you with financial gain, address some of your curiosity, help make you a person who can help reduce suffering, help you be a more fully developed human being, or a combination of these?

This is my semester break wish for you: that you find fulfillment in what you do, and the people with whom you interact. And I wish you health. Health, good community and love, and something to do that you love and is useful in some way to the world, either mentally, intellectually, emotionally, physically, or spiritually, however you define these terms. Isn’t that the good life?

What do you think?

Your instructor/professor of the last weeks,
Lana Rings

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